Monday, 2 May 2011

Review of "Sacred Causes" by Michael Burleigh, Part 1

This is a fascinating, trenchant, witty, absorbing and long book.  It seeks, in essence, to explore 20th century history by looking at the intersection of politics and secular events with religious and quasi-religious ideas and movements.

Burleigh's point of departure is the terrible mass slaughter of the First World War.  This is a conflict that tends to be oddly forgotten today, overshadowed as it is by the still more staggering horrors of World War II, the Holocaust, Communism, and a Cold War that nearly ended in a nuclear winter.  It is also less susceptible of being romanticised in hindsight than is World War II, which we still tell ourselves was a noble struggle of good against evil in which we were on the right side, we all pulled together and we won a famous victory through a mixture of Winston Churchill's inspiring leadership and good old-fashioned British spunk.

The sheer nihilistic insanity of World War I is still staggering.  The most prosperous, cultured and scientifically advanced nations on earth suddenly - and it did happen suddenly, as Niall Ferguson has shown - started to murder each other's young male citizens on an industrial scale.  It claimed as its victims 16 million men, women and children, together with four great European empires.  Even today, most of us can point to at least one family member who joined up, maybe as a volunteer, and didn't come back from the trenches.  Years of merciless slaughter brutalised an entire continent and brought the curtain down on four centuries of European global dominance.

Once the armistice was signed and the peoples of Europe had stopped killing their neighbours, they turned to killing their fellow countrymen.  Insurrections, riots and civil wars broke out in Germany, Poland, Italy, Ireland and elsewhere.  The best known of these internecine struggles took place in Russia, where revolution and civil war raged from 1917 to 1923.  The victory, of course, went to the Bolsheviks, under the inspiring leadership of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, a sinister figure whom (as Burleigh reports) even the smug leftist philosopher Bertrand Russell thought was a bit much.

Russell, in fact, explicitly saw Bolshevism as a new religious movement, and the Russian experiment with Marxism was indeed as much about religion as it was about politics and power.  The Soviet leadership mercilessly took on the Russian Orthodox Church and replaced its traditional pieties with their own festivals, their own rites of passage, their own sacred texts and, in due course, their own saviour-gods, the dead Lenin and the living Stalin.  Christian millennialism gave way to belief in a secular industrial utopia brought about not by Christ's victory over the Antichrist but by the victory of the party and the proletariat over demonised, stereotyped class enemies.  And, of course, the Communist state created its own grisly mechanisms and rituals of heresy-hunting, inquisition, confession and auto da fé.  This cannot be dismissed as a Stalinist perversion of the original pure socialist cause.  The Bolshevik Party always had something of the Jesuits about it.  Both before and after it seized power, it constituted a band of highly disciplined, fanatical ascetics - "monks of a nihilist religion", in Semyon Frank's phrase.  As Burleigh points out, the literature on Soviet Communism has repeatedly made religious comparisons of this sort.

The other great political religion of the interwar period was fascism.  This was a violent and exotic creed born in an Italy which had yet to come to terms with its pyrrhic victory in the Great War.  Though Mussolini was privately contemptuous of traditional religion, fascism explicitly demanded from its adherents a commitment amounting to religious faith.  Like Bolshevism, it had its own symbology, liturgies, martyrs and confessions of faith - here, for example, is the creed of the Balilla youth movement:
I believe in Rome the eternal, the mother of my country,
and in Italy, her eldest daughter,
who was born in her virginal bosom by the grace of God;
who suffered through the barbarian invasions,
was crucified and buried; who descended to the grave,
and was raised from the dead in the 19th century;
who ascended into heaven in her glory in 1918 and 1922,
and who is seated on the right hand of her mother Rome;
and who for this reason shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the genius of Mussolini, in our Holy Father Fascism,
in the communion of its martyrs,
in the conversion of Italians,
and in the resurrection of the Empire.
How did this sort of thing go down with the Catholic Church?  By the early 20th century, the papacy had begun to emerge from its extended sulk following the loss of the Papal States, which had led to a lengthy boycott of the Italian political system.  The demise of this boycott did not lead to the formation of a coherent Catholic voting bloc.  Catholic voters were distributed across the left-right spectrum, though they were forbidden to support the anticlerical Socialists.  In 1919, they finally formed their own political party, the briefly successful Partito Popolare Italiano, but this merely disguised rather than healed the persisting divisions within Italian Catholic society.  The PPI's fate was sealed by the election in 1922 of Pope Pius XI, who didn't think much of the party and forced the resignation of its antifascist leader Fr Luigi Sturzo.  The rest of the PPI's left wing disappeared into impotence, while its right wing threw its lot in with Mussolini.

Meanwhile, the fascists smartened up their Catholic credentials.  Mussolini re-married his wife in church, and the government banned abortion and beauty contests.  Most significantly of all, decades of negotiations and stalemate between the Italian government and the Holy See came to an end in 1929 with the signing of the Lateran Pacts, under which the Vatican City State was created.  The honeymoon between the church and the party was not to last, however.  The authorities continued to harrass the church's grassroots mass movement Catholic Action, which was thought to harbour former members of the PPI left.  Pius XI was not amused, and he publicly attacked the regime in his 1931 encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno.

Meanwhile, a more sinister variant of fascism was taking root to the north.  Burleigh notes how Germany, which had been Europe's strongest and most prosperous nation in 1914, was plunged into psychic darkness by starvation, military defeat, attempted Marxist revolutions, right-wing counter-revolutions and ruinous hyperinflation.  Postwar Germany was littered with crackpot self-proclaimed prophets in the manner of Judea in The Life of Brian, including a lunatic rabble-rouser with an Austrian accent called Adolf Hitler.  The centre could not hold.  The nationalist right never accepted the Weimar settlement, and they were assisted not only by the Stalinists in the Communist Party of Germany but also by various useful idiots on the middle-class left who thought, like some of their spiritual heirs on the Guardian's comment page, that liberal capitalism was more or less the same thing as fascism (and who got a nasty shock when the real thing came along).

In many ways, Nazism was an explicitly secular creed.  Hitler prided himself on the hard-headed scientific basis of his racial theories, and he had little time for the mystical and pseudo-pagan interests of the likes of Himmler and Alfred Rosenberg.  He was not a particularly religious man.  He had been brought up a Catholic, but he stopped practising in his teens.  In adult life, he seems to have had a sort of belief in God, and he sometimes talked vaguely about providence, the soul and eternity.  He was sometimes prepared to speak in explicitly Christian terms, particuarly when he was addressing voters during his rise to power or when he was meeting with church dignitaries - sample quotes can readily be found on most atheist internet forums.  In private, however, he expressed a Nietzschean contempt towards traditional Christianity, which he thought was insipid and superstitious.

Yet Nazism, as Burleigh was already arguing in his earlier book The Third Reich: A New History, can usefully be seen as a religious movement, a "political religion".  Like the other interwar totalitarianisms, it had its own dogmas, liturgies, sacred text, sacred time and sacred space, crowned by the Führer-cult and propagated by the SS, another murderous pastiche of the Jesuits.  Among more traditional believers, there arose a movement named the German Christians (Deutsche Christen) which attempted to fuse Christianity with the new National Socialist faith.  More conservative Christians protested directly to Hitler about the position that he had come to assume, "surrounded with the religious dignity of a national priest and hailed as an intercessor between God and the Volk".

After 18 years of tense and sporadic peace, the slaughter began to resume again in 1936 with the Nationalist insurrection in Spain.  Burleigh usefully highlights that the sad and brutal conflict known to history as the Spanish Civil War was rather more complex at the time than it became in hindsight.  Falangist propaganda portrayed it as as struggle for Christian civilisation against godless Communism.  George Orwell thought that it was a struggle for working men's rights against "millionaires, dukes, cardinals, play-boys, Blimps, and what-not".

Two propagandistic views of the role of religion in the Spanish Civil War

This was not quite right.  In particular, the religious allegiances of the two sides were less clear-cut than they seem in hindsight.  Most of the generals who led the uprising in 1936 were practical military men of a secular outlook.  They initially avoided adopting an explicitly religious programme so as not to alienate middle-class anticlericals who might support the fight against Communism.  Some Falangists were indeed antipathetic towards religion, and some churchmen (notably Cardinal Segura of Seville) didn't think much of them either.  The fervently Catholic Basques backed the Republican side, only to find themselves fighting against Muslim soldiers from North Africa.  Pius XI irritated Nationalists by coyly declining to give them his unequivocal endorsement, and the Vatican continued to recognise the Republican government until it was fairly clear that the rebels were going to win.  For his part, General Franco, a man whom few people would confuse with a religious maniac, dragged his heels in repealing the anticlerical legislation that he had inherited.